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UNCLE DREW

Production Information
ABOUT THE FILM

"You don't stop playing because you get old. You get old because you stop playing."

In the spring of 2012 audiences first met the unforgettable Uncle Drew-a rickety-looking, white-haired, older gentleman who rose gingerly from a park bench to school a bunch of "youngblood" ballers in a fiercely competitive pick-up game. "I get buckets," he told the dumbstruck witnesses. Uncle Drew was the real deal, a lost legend from another time whose love of the game and courage to keep driving the ball against the odds had apparently never faded over the decades. On the contrary-his skill had only been sharpened with a cantankerous wisdom. His appeal was palpable. The documentary style Pepsi campaign quickly went viral.

As it turned out, Uncle Drew was an old legend being played by a vibrant, young legend. Under a layer of clever prosthetic makeup was quicksilver point guard and NBA All-Star Kyrie Irving taking on the character who would become a run-away phenomenon. Uncle Drew's YouTube videos have been viewed over 100 million times. After four webisodes people still wanted to see and to know more. Who was this trash-talking, proud old baller with so much game? What had happened to him? What drove him to keep playing in the park? And what would he do with one last shot at greatness?

The persistent excitement buzzing around Uncle Drew led Irving, a group of dedicated filmmakers and a handful of sterling NBA icons to dedicate themselves to a feature-length production of UNCLE DREW. The idea was to take the character on a larger journey that, like the webisodes, would be as enjoyable and moving for audiences who are passionate about basketball as for audiences who wouldn't know a foul from an alley-oop. The film would not only explore Drew's fascinating life history and supernatural skills but take him on a comedic adventure to reunite his old teammates into a true family, even if they all appear more likely to compete for the early bird special than New York's most illustrious streetball tournament.

The movie stars a slew of basketball's biggest celebrities, including Irving, Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, Reggie Miller and Lisa Leslie and some of today's hottest comic stars, from Tiffany Haddish to Nick Kroll. Irving says: "I think what makes this movie so special is that it maintains the authenticity of how sports can bring people together around something they love. The basketball's great, the comedy's hilarious, but the message of family behind the story is even more awesome."

In the film, Uncle Drew is called back into action by Dax (played by Get Out's Lil Rel Howery), a young man who has been on a life-long losing streak and at first doesn't believe Uncle Drew is any more than an urban legend But once he finds Uncle Drew-and joins forces with him to assemble a last-minute squad for The Rucker Classic, the Harlem tournament where countless basketball legends made their names-Dax learns that Uncle Drew has much more to give than just buckets.

"For Uncle Drew, this journey is about reconciling the mistakes he's made in his life and with his teammates," sums up Irving. "Uncle Drew may have lost his way but now it's time for him to put the team back together and find his purpose again. It's a wild journey, but in the end, he and Dax and his long-lost friends become a true family, and it's a beautiful thing."

UNCLE DREW HISTORY 101

It might be uncommon for a viral short to become a feature film released by global content provider Lionsgate, but Uncle Drew, the man, the myth and the meme, was never any ordinary character. Uncle Drew originated when Pepsi Productions identified then Cleveland Cavaliers (now Boston Celtics) point guard Kyrie Irving as having charisma and talent beyond his athleticism Pepsi saw an opportunity to do something outside the box with Irving. But no one could have foreseen the phenomenon Uncle Drew would become or that the character would reflect a world where old and new school converge both on and off the courts.

While still just a teenage rookie, Irving demonstrated a presence that popped off the screen. Recalls Louis Arbetter, General Manager of Pepsi Productions, "As the NBA's #1 draft pick, Kyrie first appeared in small Pepsi for Life digital short. His willingness to jump into the role and try something new, combined with his natural charisma was amazing. We said, 'Let's sign him for a couple of years and create something fun together.'"

That fun kicked off when Pepsi, and their agency Davie Brown Entertainment, dreamed up an immediately appealing idea: the vigorously youthful Irving would fully disguise himself as a mysterious senior citizen talking up the good old glory days of the sport and bemoaning the state of things today- only to unleash raw skills that would take hot-handed young park players by shock.

The idea sparked something in Irving. "The first time we talked about the character with Kyrie we envisioned this old baller who hangs out on the courts with all the youngbloods talking trash and reminiscing about the good old days. Kyrie immediately understood this archetype because he had spent so much time playing basketball in parks growing up," says Marc Gilbar, who was Group Creative Director at Davie Brown Entertainment at the time.

Since Irving's middle name is Andrew, they dubbed his character Uncle Drew. The idea could have just been a one-off prank but it became something far more. It was when Irving rose from the makeup chair for the first time, having transformed not only visually but seemingly from within, that it became clear Uncle Drew had truly come to life.

For Irving, the channeling of Uncle Drew felt seamless in part because it was a chance to step into the shoes of his own idols. "Uncle Drew was a way for me to pay homage to some of the basketball greats that have come before me like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robinson and others who made their mark on the sport," he says. "These guys were unbelievable talents. When they left the game their legacy continued, so I felt a responsibility to honor them with Uncle Drew."

"Once Kyrie was in full makeup, he was transformed," remembers Gilbar. "Kyrie started doing the voice, practicing different expressions and lines, and the character was born. He was completely in character. We threw him in a van and started interviewing him, asking 'What do you think about these young kids today?' He would just go off about how their shoes are flashy, and their music is too loud. He just had it all ready to go."

Chris Webber explains why he thinks Uncle Drew hit such a nerve: "Uncle Drew is a guardian of the great tenets of the game but those tenets also transfer to life: being a good teammate, selflessness, working with others. He's about the idea that you can still be great, no matter your age or who you are, if you pay attention to the fundamentals and stand by your family." As Uncle Drew became an overnight sensation, everyone saw the chance to keep pushing the story into fresh creative territory. "It was a hit, but we wanted to do more," says Arbetter. "So we decided to expand the story to Uncle Drew trying to get his old team together again. Each subsequent episode became a really fun guessing game for fans as to who the next player on Uncle Drew's team would be and they just absolutely loved it."When Uncle Drew blew up on the internet, it caught the eye of executive producer John Fischer of Temple Hill Entertainment. "I noticed that you can't help but have a smile on your face when you see Uncle Drew," says Fischer. "People were responding to the spirit of it, to that sense of optimism and fun."

Impressed that Irving wrote and directed one of the webisodes, Fischer sent a clip fourth webisode to his boss, Marty Bowen (the Maze Runner series, Power Rangers). He attached a note suggesting that Irving could perhaps direct and star in a movie based on the character. "Marty promptly responded, 'There's no way that a professional basketball player in the prime of his career is going to leave the NBA to direct a movie' – which was a good point," laughs Fischer.

But Bowen was intrigued: "I teased John about it, but then I ended up watching the rest of the shorts ...then I watched them again...and again. I found myself really enjoying the tone that had been so beautifully created in them."

Bowen and Fischer reached out to Kyrie's management team of Jeff Wechsler, Perry Rogers and Colin Smeeton for Kyrie to star in a different basketball movie by screenwriter Jay Longino. When they collectively decided it was not the right fit for Kyrie, Smeeton and Temple Hill talked about the idea of turning Uncle Drew into a movie. Smeeton then made the invaluable connection between Bowen and Pepsi. Smeeton met with Adam Harter and Lou Arbetter from Pepsi to discuss taking Uncle Drew to the big screen. "The Uncle Drew digital series was already the most successful sports marketing campaign in the history of YouTube. On one hand it proved we had a built in audience, but it also meant we had a responsibility to stay true to the Uncle Drew character and its loyal fanbase." Smeeton said.

Longino, a former college basketball player, pumped his passion for the game into his first draft, also bringing hilarity and humanity to it. He envisioned a tale that went beyond the fun of an elderly man who can fly on the court to make it about a group of old friends going after a dream everyone thought was gone from their grasp. "I've always loved stories where people realize they're capable of more than they expect of themselves-and that's where we took UNCLE DREW," says Longino.

In early meetings, Bowen came up with the mantra that defines Uncle Drew. "It was Marty who first cited the George Bernard Shaw quote 'you don't stop playing because you get old, you get old because you stop playing,'" Longino recalls. "That became our foundation: that Uncle Drew reminds us that age, circumstance or even past failures should not limit what you can accomplish today."

As he delved deeper into drafts of the script, Longino also honed Uncle Drew's devotion to what Drew calls "the fundamentals" of basketball, the core values and work ethic that made the sport an American passion from the start. "This is my love letter to basketball," says Longino. "I was able to say what I've always wanted to say about how much the game means to me. And knowing Kyrie Irving feels the same way about the game was a constant inspiration."

With a screenplay that paid reverence to basketball's role in American life, but had an appeal that transcended sports, all parties were moved by the fact that the script accomplished the one thing that mattered most: it embodied the original Uncle Drew vibe that proved so fun and alluring in the Pepsi shorts. The script had kept alive that raw street spirit and sense of joy, but also told a bigger, funnier story that could only be done on the big screen. With Pepsi and Irving on board, Bowen approached Lionsgate's EVP of Production Jim Miller, and subsequently Lionsgate's Summit Entertainment, to come on board. "Marty was producing Saban's Power Rangers for us and mentioned the project to me. Once I read the script I knew it was something that would fit perfectly at Lionsgate since the studio is always looking to find quality stories to tell and Uncle Drew was just that."

CHARLES STONE III MEETS UNCLE DREW

As the development of UNCLE DREW progressed, Bowen knew the project needed someone with an unusual hybrid of talents at the helm. It had to be a director with some serious experience in sports and comedy who has the creative ability to take on an already established persona but with a fresh take.

Bowen believed he already knew just the right person: Charles Stone III. Stone, a former agency client of Bowen, had directed the meme-making "Whassup" commercials for Budweiser, and had also directed the rousing college marching-band movie Drumline and the baseball comedy Mr. 3000. Stone's passion for basketball sealed the deal. Says Bowen: "I've believed in Charles for decades, so the chance to make this movie with someone whose work I so greatly respect was something I can never replace."

Although he had been drawn in by the Uncle Drew webisodes, Stone knew it would be no slam-dunk to expand them into a movie with a heart all its own. "The shorts, they have a lot of character to them, but they rely on the hook of unsuspecting people watching as Uncle Drew and his teammates reveal their magical moves. I had to ask: how do we create a richer emotional tone? That was the challenge," says Stone. "It's easy to get caught up in the humor of Uncle Drew as Kyrie's alter-ego, but I also wanted to give audiences a true emotional spine. I took the approach that beneath the comedy and basketball, this is a heart-felt story about the search for family and how we all work better together as opposed to solo."

Working with Irving was a highlight. "Kyrie is a renaissance man," observes Stone. "The thing about Kyrie that I find to be so outstanding is his built-in stillness and wise energy. As young as he is [...] his demeanor feels very rooted in patience. At the same time, he's got instinctive comic timing and of course he's an amazing ball player."

Irving had never taken so much as an acting class when he first portrayed Uncle Drew, who came to him organically. But to prepare for the film he worked with both acting coach Adam Lazarre-White and Stone, who he credits with keeping him focused. "As a 25 year old at the time we filmed the movie, I just want to get out there and play. Charles kept reminding me that as Uncle Drew, my knee hurts, my back hurts and nothing comes easy," laughs Irving.

It was vital to Stone to keep the comic roots of the character alive. Viewers were particularly fond of the sly joke of an old man dunking on young kids at the park. The film puts its own twist on a classic comic form: the road-trip comedy-but this road trip crosses generational lines as well as state lines. "Some of the funniest moments in the film happen with the battling that goes on during this epic road trip," notes Stone. "There's a big generation gap between Dax and Drew, so you have them in the van arguing over which era's music is better, which is a lot of fun."

Stone loves that Uncle Drew breaks the mold, constantly upending people's expectations, showing that he has much more to give than his appearance suggests. His wisecracks might come easy, but his wisdom is hard-won and all the more valuable for it. "Uncle Drew is the Yoda of basketball," laughs Stone. "He can be curmudgeonly, but he's gained depth and insight in his years. He understands what it means to put your heart into something and that's why he can still do Jedi tricks on court to this day. 'It's all about the love' is something he says a lot and to me that's key to his character."

Perhaps most fun for Stone was exploring Uncle Drew's roots as Harlem folk hero-a legend of the freewheeling 60s and 70s who suddenly, mysteriously disappeared from the scene after controversy began to dog him. Stone and the crew had a blast exploring how the man's myth was made, with a lovingly hand-made mockumentary that opens UNCLE DREW.

"The documentary was a way to immediately show you Uncle Drew's mystique," Stone explains, "There are so many rumors about him, like that he won a game playing with a ham sandwich in one hand. We felt there would definitely be a doc about him. Also, once you watch that documentary, no one expects to find Uncle Drew living in a tricked-out 70s van."

UNCLE DREW capitalizes on the chance to blend things that don't often get blended: mixing NBA stars with actors, mixing barbershop banter with coming-of-age poignancy, mixing an homage to tradition with the fun of the new. "From all the combinations in this film you get fireworks, you get things happening you don't expect," Stone says. "You'll see Nate Robinson dunking on Shaquille O'Neal, one of the smallest guys slamming on one of the tallest. You'll see Lil Rel coming off of Get Out and Kyrie coming off an incredible season on the court. You get a heartwarming story that's also funny with lots of sports action. It's a heck of a mix."

DAX: FROM HUSTLER TO UNITER

Dax Winslow is the man who unexpectedly brings Uncle Drew back to the court. He proves to be both Drew's comic foil and true friend. Though always a diehard basketball fanatic, Dax has never had the chance to really feel a part of the game. Ever since missing his one chance to hit a winning shot as a kid, he's been hustling to prove his worth, nearly forgetting why he wanted that success in the first place. He thought he was on the hunt for the next young hotshot, only to find himself trying to wrangle a limping, -if also swaggering-team of guys who haven't rebounded since the 70s.

"Dax is a young man searching for family. He doesn't see it coming, but in the course of putting together this team of old guys to play at the Rucker tournament, he finds that. They teach him some things about what matters," says Stone.

Up-and-coming Lil Rel Howery-the stand-up and actor who recently broke out for his role in the runaway Oscar-winning hit Get Out-made the most of the role. It's Dax who shows how everybody ends up gaining something from the mix of new and old school.

"Lil Rel is hilarious and he's got that firecracker energy that was so important for Dax, because it creates such a great contrast with Uncle Drew," Stone adds. "He brings a fast talking wit and that sort of egotistical vibrancy that Dax uses to compensate for not being a success. I love that Dax defies stereotypes as a protagonist. As Lil Rel plays him, Dax is this guy who isn't that cool, who's a little nerdy, who is kind of sweet and doesn't have all the answers."

The fun for Howery was taking Dax through a transformation-from a hustler trying any which way to keep himself afloat to the uniter of a life-changing team. "Dax was an orphan," Howery points out, "so from the start, basketball was his way of finding friends and family. He just forgets how important that is until he meets Uncle Drew. He's felt unappreciated, betrayed and unable to trust anybody. He's made his life about the hustle and being in it for himself."

It's only out of sheer desperation that Dax sets out to find Uncle Drew, not foreseeing how it might change him. At first, he's skeptical Uncle Drew is even real, let alone even the longest shot contender all these years later. "When guys in the barbershop talk about Uncle Drew, Dax doesn't believe any of it," notes Howery. "He says, 'you mean to tell me this dude is 75 and still playing that caliber of basketball?' It sounds crazy. So when he finally meets Uncle Drew it's like seeing Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny in person."

But as Dax and Uncle Drew set out on a trek to locate his old team, their cross-generational friction leads to a deeper connection and Dax comes to feel needed as he never has before. "At first, Dax and Drew are just two strangers in a van," describes Howery. "They're having all this back-and-forth about music and basketball and not agreeing on anything. But by the time they get to Harlem, Dax realizes he is experiencing a feeling he always wanted, the feeling of family. He's now surrounded by people who actually love him for being himself."

Once the competition starts at the Rucker tournament, Dax realizes something different is on the line than what he imagined. More than a win or the cash, what matters now is that he can't to let down his friends. "It's become about so much more than money for him. He has the chance to gain the respect and affection he always wanted," says Howery.

Perhaps the most unusual perk of playing Dax for Howery was getting to witness up-close Irving's daily transformation from nimble, explosive NBA star in his prime to hobbling but lion-hearted senior citizen. "What amazed me most is how Kyrie shows you the spirit of Uncle Drew behind the makeup," says Howery. "It awed me to see that happen every day."

Irving's immersion into Uncle Drew also inspired Howery as an actor. "One of my favorite moments with Kyrie was during the Rucker finals," Howery recalls. "Dax is unsure of himself and Uncle Drew matter-of-factly tells him, 'Don't need you to be great all the time, youngblood, just need you to be great one time.' In this scene, like many others, I forgot he was Kyrie. He was channeling Uncle Drew so much, I truly thought I was on set with this wise old man."

Confronting an entire roster of NBA greats remade into septuagenarians blew Howery's mind at times. "It was weird and dope at the same time," he says. "I almost forgot what everybody looked until they took the makeup off and then it was like, 'Oh, yeah, you are Chris Webber, you are Lisa Leslie, you are Nate.'"

Howery also reveled in the trash-talking rat-a-tat that athletes and comics share in common. "The thing about basketball players and comedians is that we both enjoy roasting everyone," says Howery. "And some of the funny stuff we said to each other wound up in the movie."

For all the repartee, the NBA stars were also ready to share their expertise. Howery remembers each giving him advice for his big game scene. "Lisa Leslie was like 'No, you wouldn't stand like that. If somebody's taking a ball out this way, you guard it this way.' It was great. I don't know if there's ever been this many basketball legends in one movie where they're actually playing before. That alone makes UNCLE DREW stand out."

But nothing for Howery could beat swapping stories with his NBA cast mates. "They answered a lot of questions I've always had about certain plays and moments," he shares. "And they were really honest. I could probably do a documentary based on what I learned from everybody on this set!"

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